The University of Chicago has announced their next venture investments from the UChicago Startup Investment Program. Ascent Technologies, a regulation technology company that helps users build, manage and automate their compliance programs, received $315,000 from the University as part of their Series A financing rounds.
Announced in 2016, the UChicago Startup Investment Program is an initiative in which the University co-invests alongside established venture funds in startups led by UChicago faculty, staff, students and alumni. The University has set aside $25 million from its endowment to invest in startups raising early-funding rounds. The program is overseen by the University’s Office of Investments, which manages the $7.5 billion endowment, as part of its private equity and venture capital portfolio, in collaboration with the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
To date, the program has made two venture investments. In October 2017, ExplORer Surgical, an interactive surgical playbook that promotes optimal teamwork in the operating room that is based on technology from the University of Chicago Medical Center, received a $500,000 investment as part of their $3 million Series A financing. And in December 2017, Tovala, a smart oven and meal-delivery service, received $500,000 as part of their $9.2 million round. Both companies are alums of the Polsky Center’s capstone program, the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge.
Ascent Technologies was founded by Brian Clark, MBA’17, and Aaron Droba, MBA‘16, while students at Chicago Booth. Part of the growing field of “RegTech,” Ascent uses innovative technologies to help companies better manage increasingly-complicated regulatory compliance risk. Ascent combines a SaaS platform with intelligent content to provide customized tools and targeted advice to customers. Using artificial intelligence, natural language processing and machine learning, Ascent’s platform makes it easy for compliance officers in regulated industries to see exactly what is expected of their companies, then track and report on the steps they are taking to stay compliant.
After forming at Chicago Booth, Clark and Droba took Ascent through the Polsky Center’s New Venture Challenge in 2015‑placing as a finalist and winning $10,000 at the competition. As Clark describes, the benefits of the New Venture Challenge were far beyond the monetary prize.
“The New Venture Challenge helped put the structure around what was initially an ethereal and theoretical concept to use AI to simplify financial compliance,” said Clark. “The program provides the tools and infrastructure to turn raw ideas into a company, which has had a lasting impact for Ascent.”
Shortly after the New Venture Challenge, Ascent went on to close a $1.2 million seed round in 2016. In building its business, Ascent has continued to receive support from the Polsky Center and the University of Chicago community.
“The Polsky Center is more than the programs or even the information they provide: It’s the consistent support of the entire Polsky community,” said Clark. “As both a student and an alum, the ability to access to a community that not only is supportive, but actively seeks out ways that they can help entrepreneurs … really helps us navigate the challenges of forming a startup and transforms what can be a middling experience to an exceptional one.”
Ascent’s latest round is led by Alsop Louie Partners. With this funding, Ascent plans to continue to invest in their automation engines to further decrease the regulatory compliance cost on businesses of all sizes. Additionally, they plan to hire significantly in the technology and sales and marketing sides of the business, and to expand their footprint in Chicago—an ecosystem they are committed to staying in and working alongside other Polsky Center-connected companies. According to Clark, the UChicago Startup Investment Program is further support for the ecosystem that the Polsky Center has helped create.
“The Startup Investment Program sets a foundation for a really intriguing model to support entrepreneurship as a student. This idea of entrepreneurship as a permanent discipline fits extremely well in the University of Chicago and Chicago Booth communities,” said Clark. “Aligning it and leveraging it with this significant capital availability is a logical extension of what the University is already doing in an excellent manner—providing resources, providing mentors, providing colocation. This is one of the last pieces of the puzzle to generating a really exciting ecosystem of entrepreneurs that is already paying dividends.”